Hun­gry na­tion slips fur­ther to­wards chaos

Venezue­lans are storm­ing su­per­mar­kets and at­tack­ing trucks as food sup­plies dwin­dle.

The Dominion Post - - World -

In the dark­ness the ware­house looks like any other, a met­al­roofed hangar next to a clat­ter­ing over­pass, with home­less peo­ple sleep­ing nearby in the shad­ows.

But in­side, work­ers qui­etly un­load black plas­tic crates filled with mer­chan­dise so valu­able that mobs have looted de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles, shot up the wind­screens of trucks, and hurled a rock into one driver’s eye. Sol­diers and po­lice milling around the load­ing de­pots give this neigh­bour­hood the feel of a mil­i­tary gar­ri­son.

‘‘It’s just cheese,’’ says Juan Ur­rea, a 29-year-old driver, as work­ers un­load white Venezue­lan queso from his de­liv­ery truck. ‘‘I’ve never seen any­thing like this be­fore.’’

The fight for food has begun in Venezuela. On any day, in cities across this in­creas­ingly des­per­ate na­tion, crowds form to sack su­per­mar­kets. Pro­test­ers take to the streets to de­cry the sky­rock­et­ing prices and dwin­dling sup­plies of ba­sic goods.

The wealthy im­pro­vise, some shop­ping on­line for food that ar­rives from Mi­ami. Mid­dle-class fam­i­lies make do with less: cof­fee with­out milk, sar­dines in­stead of beef, two daily meals in­stead of three. The poor are strip­ping man­goes off the trees and strug­gling to sur­vive.

‘‘This is sav­agery,’’ said Pe­dro Zaraza, a car oil sales­man, who watched a mob mass last week­end out­side a su­per­mar­ket, where it was even­tu­ally dis­persed by the army. ‘‘The au­thor­i­ties are los­ing their grip.’’

What has been a slow-mo­tion cri­sis in Venezuela seems to be ca­reer­ing into a new, more dan­ger­ous phase. The long eco­nomic de­cline of the coun­try with the world’s largest oil re­serves now shows signs of mor­ph­ing into a hu­man­i­tar­ian emer­gency.

Ex­hausted by gov­ern­mentim­posed power black­outs, spi­ralling crime, end­less food lines, short­ages of medicine, and waves of loot­ing and protest, cit­i­zens are mo­bil­is­ing against their lead­ers. In re­cent days, Venezue­lans lined up to add their names to a re­call pe­ti­tion that aims to bring down Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro and put an end to the so­cial­ist-in­spired ‘‘rev­o­lu­tion’’ ig­nited 17 years ago by his pre­de­ces­sor Hugo Chavez.

‘‘This can’t con­tinue,’’ says Angel Ron­don, a me­chanic, who now some­times eats just once a day. ‘‘Things have to change.’’

The ru­mour spread quickly on a re­cent Tues­day evening in the poor farm­lands near Barlovento, an hour east of the cap­i­tal, Caracas: a truck carrying rice had tipped over and food was free for the tak­ing. Gle­nis Sira, a mother of seven, grabbed a plas­tic bag and ran from her cin­der block shack. More than 1000 peo­ple joined her in scram­bling to reach the vil­lage of La Fun­da­cion be­fore they re­alised there was no rice truck, only a ru­mour.

‘‘We have never had this level of need,’’ said Sira, one of sev­eral witnesses who de­scribed the melee.

For decades Venezuela was one of Latin Amer­ica’s more sta­ble and de­vel­oped democ­ra­cies, with a mid­dle class ac­cus­tomed to the ben­e­fits of oil wealth. Eco­nomic crises in the 1980s and 1990s bat­tered many Venezue­lan fam­i­lies. But the Chavez era was marked by ris­ing oil prices and de­clin­ing poverty, leav­ing few peo­ple pre­pared for the sick­en­ing freefall of the past few years.

Sira has long been a proud ‘‘Chav­ista’’, con­vinced that gov­ern­ment spend­ing could cre­ate a more equal so­ci­ety. Chavez’s gov­ern­ment, flush with oil money and bil­lions of dol­lars in for­eign loans, gave her the Madre de Bar­rio subsidy for moth­ers in ex­treme poverty. An­other pro­gramme helped res­i­dents to fin­ish houses un­der con­struc­tion. Youths from her com­mu­nity re­ceived schol­ar­ships.

But many of the wel­fare pro­grammes started by Chavez have dried up, and the near­est store has lit­tle more than two-litre bot­tles of Pepsi and packs of cig­a­rettes.

Un­der Chavez, the gov­ern­ment es­tab­lished a net­work of gov­ern­ment-run su­per­mar­kets that sold ba­sic foods at sub­sidised prices. But in­fla­tion has put even these bar­gains out of reach for many peo­ple. A kilo­gram of yucca now costs about one-third of the weekly min­i­mum wage.

Sira’s neigh­bours hunt deer and ar­madil­los for sub­sis­tence, and barter their mea­gre catch. She lives off what she can grow – yams, toma­toes, corn – or what she can for­age. Once a ca­cao-pro­duc­ing re­gion, the area has been dev­as­tated by drought.

‘‘I’m a Chav­ista and damn it, this sit­u­a­tion is hard,’’ she said. ‘‘That is why the rev­o­lu­tion is be­ing killed – be­cause we are hun­gry.’’

Venezuela’s abil­ity to pro­duce food and other goods has dwin­dled over the years as the gov­ern­ment has ex­pro­pri­ated pri­vate com­pa­nies, ex­panded price con­trols, and oth­er­wise dis­cour­aged pri­vate pro­duc­tion. Corn, rice and other foods once grown do­mes­ti­cally now have to be imported.

In the past two years, oil prices have dropped by half to be­low US$50 a barrel, the econ­omy has con­tracted se­verely, and im­ports have grown more un­af­ford­able. Pri­vate com­pa­nies have shut down for lack of ac­cess to gov­ern­ment­con­trolled United States dol­lars to pay for raw ma­te­ri­als.

The gov­ern­ment has so far pri­ori­tised mak­ing debt pay­ments to avoid de­fault while cut­ting back on imported prod­ucts, in­clud­ing food. In re­cent days, air­lines such as Lufthansa, LATAM and Aeromex­ico have stopped fly­ing to Venezuela, as the strict cur­rency con­trols made it dif­fi­cult for them to be paid in full.

About 87 per cent of peo­ple say they don’t have enough money to buy food, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study by Si­mon Bo­li­var Univer­sity.

‘‘We have not yet seen the cli­max of the cri­sis,’’ said Luis Vi­cente Leon, di­rec­tor of the polling firm Datanal­i­sis, who es­ti­mated that re­tail food out­lets in Caracas lack about 80 to 85 per cent of their usual prod­ucts. ‘‘Sup­plies have de­te­ri­o­rated to a very sig­nif­i­cant de­gree, and it’s prob­a­ble that things will con­tinue to get worse.’’

This year, Maduro de­creed that food dis­tri­bu­tion would be placed un­der the con­trol of thou­sands of lo­cal cit­i­zen com­mit­tees, which crit­ics say are bi­ased to­wards gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers. That meant sub­sidised food would be di­verted from the poorly stocked gov­ern­ment-run su­per­mar­kets.

Over the first five months of this year, Venezue­lans have vi­o­lently looted busi­nesses – or tried to do so – at least 254 times, ac­cord­ing to the Venezue­lan Ob­ser­va­tory of So­cial Con­flict. The num­ber of protests over food has risen each month this year, to 172 in May. Sev­eral peo­ple have died and hun­dreds more have been ar­rested in in­ci­dents of un­rest across the coun­try.

Maduro’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has blamed the in­ci­dents on an ‘‘eco­nomic war’’ led by for­eign­ers and pri­vate busi­ness­men who, it claims, are hoard­ing food sup­plies to desta­bilise the gov­ern­ment. ‘‘There is no hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis,’’ For­eign Min­is­ter Delcy Ro­driguez told an Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Amer­i­can States meet­ing last week.

Trans­port­ing the na­tion’s food means run­ning a gaunt­let of need. On June 20, hun­dreds of pro­test­ers blocked a high­way in an area called El Guapo, east of Caracas, paralysing dozens of de­liv­ery trucks. Dur­ing the day­long stand­off, driver Jonathan Nar­vaes, 32, watched as res­i­dents ran­sacked trucks carrying flour and pasta. Sol­diers used tear gas to dis­perse the crowds.

‘‘My boss wants me to try again,’’ Nar­vaes said. ‘‘I told him, ‘Boss, they al­most killed me’.’’

Driv­ers un­load­ing cheese in Caracas, af­ter a 15-hour journey from near the coun­try’s western bor­der with Colom­bia, say trucks have been shot at and bat­tered with rocks and that they must pay bribes in money or cheese to mil­i­tary check­points along the way.

‘‘Sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions are hap­pen­ing in al­most the whole coun­try,’’ says Al­fredo Sanchez, the head driver of a de­liv­ery com­pany called Paisa.

A driver who gave his name as Tony, with the Lacteos La Guan­ota com­pany, said that when he drove through north-cen­tral Aragua state re­cently, pro­test­ers sur­rounded trucks and hauled away the cargo of pigs and chick­ens.

Some wealth­ier con­sumers have re­sorted to hav­ing food shipped to Venezuela. So­raya Cedillo, the owner of a courier com­pany, says 70 per cent of her cus­tomers are Venezue­lans liv­ing in the US buy­ing prod­ucts such as corn­flour, sugar, pow­dered milk, toi­let pa­per and tam­pons for rel­a­tives back home.

In Caracas, shop queues have grown so long they have cre­ated ecosys­tems of com­merce. Out­side the Plan Suarez gov­ern­ment su­per­mar­ket, ven­dors sell cig­a­rettes and lemon­ade to the hun­dreds who line up. To cut down on crowds, of­fi­cials al­low in each day only peo­ple with cer­tain num­bers on their na­tional iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards.

‘‘We’re wait­ing with­out even know­ing what they will bring to­day, or if they’ll bring any­thing,’’ Yo­rilei Ramos, 51, said as she stood along­side her 9-year-old daugh­ter. ‘‘Your kids are cry­ing, ‘I’m hun­gry’, and you have to tell them, ‘I have noth­ing’.’’

PHOTO: WASH­ING­TON POST

An­drea Sira, 11, waits for meal­time at her home in Barlovento, near the cap­i­tal, Caracas. The only food in her fam­ily’s re­frig­er­a­tor is wa­ter and man­goes.

PHOTO: WASH­ING­TON POST

A man rests in front of a store in Barlovento which has not re­ceived food since Jan­uary, forc­ing peo­ple to go to big­ger towns or even into Caracas to shop.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Men col­lect man­goes af­ter throw­ing their shoes at the tree to dis­lodge them, dur­ing their lunch break in Caracas.

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